Egypt's constitutional amendments: The roles of the Senate

Gamal Essam El-Din , Monday 22 Apr 2019

The creation of an upper house of parliament in Egypt came as no surprise to many

An Egyptian whirling dervish dances with a "tanoura" (multicolored skirt) as people gather with national flags outside polling stations during a referendum on constitutional amendments, at a school in the Haram district in the capital Cairo's western twin city of Giza (AFP)

When Egypt's parliamentary majority bloc Support Egypt submitted proposed amendments to Egypt's 2014 constitution, it came as no surprise to many that one of the objectives of these amendments is to create a second house to be called 'the Senate'. 

The original draft of the amendments stated that a second house by the name of the Senate would be created and that it would comprise 250 members. But the final draft, approved by parliament on 16 April, states that the Senate shall comprise 180 members at least, and its term will be five years. The amended Article 250 also states that two thirds of the Senate members shall be elected in a secret ballot, and a third will be appointed by the president.

Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, head of the Support Egypt coalition, told a meeting held by parliament's constitutional and legislative affairs committee on 14 April that the objective of the formation of a Senate is to widen the scope of political participation.

"The restoration of the bicameral system in Egypt shall give the opportunity for many sections of society to join parliamentary life, voice their opinions about public policies and help improve the legislating process," said Al-Qasabi.

A 51-page report prepared by the constitutional and legislative affairs committee also indicates that the formation of the Senate will open the door for high-profile public figures, experts and the intelligentsia to contribute to improving public policies and drafting legislations in Egypt.

"Many of these figures refrain from standing in parliamentary elections, but with the formation of the Senate and via appointment they will be able to have their voices heard and participate in shaping public policies," said the report.

A study by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) explains that the bicameral system has always been a feature of Egypt's political and parliamentary life.

"Egypt had the two-house system as far back as the end of the 19th century, and after the promulgation of the liberal constitution in 1923, a bicameral system was again introduced, including two chambers – the House of Representatives and the Senate," said the study. "But a new constitution in 1956 adopted a one house parliament – the National Assembly – and this lasted until 1980 when late President Anwar El-Sadat decided to form the upper consultative house of the Shura Council."

When a 50-member constituent assembly met in 2013 to draft Egypt's current constitution, it came under heavy pressure from the public to relinquish the Shura Council. Sayed Abdel-Aal, chairman of the leftist Tagammu party, told Ahram Online that "in addition to the fact that the Shura Council had no significant roles, it was also costly."

Abdel-Aal said that El-Tagammu and many other opposition forces in parliament stipulated during the national dialogue hearing sessions that a second house should have significant legislative and supervisory roles.

"Although our party approved the amendments in general, it rejected the idea of creating a toothless upper house," said Abdel-Aal.

The committee's report said that the Senate will have complete legislative powers.

"This will help in that the final say on laws and policies will not be the privilege of one parliament, not to mention that this will also prevent any one political force from dominating any of the two houses," said the report, adding that "as a result, it will be obligatory for the Senate discuss and approve any future constitutional amendments."

"The state's social-economic development plans, foreign agreements, laws, and other public policy matters will also be required to be discussed by the Senate," said the report, adding that "it will be compulsory for all of the above issues to seek the Senate's approval, but the final say and vote on them will be the prerogative of the lower house of parliament (the House of Representatives)."

As for supervisory roles, the report indicated that members of the Senate will be privileged with opening a debate on certain public issues or government policies, and submitting proposals, and in this respect the Senate will be authorised to summon cabinet ministers to know their comments on such public issues and policies.

"This is the case in many world countries adopting bicameral systems, and these make governments answerable to the lower house only," said the report.

Also, the report indicated, "it is not new for the president to be empowered with appointing one third of the Senate members."

"This is the rule in many world countries, not to mention that Egypt's rulers, whether they be kings or presidents, had always been given the right to appoint a third of members of the second upper house," said the report.

The report explains that the president's right in appointing a third of Shura Council members will be governed by certain conditions.

"In fact, it isn't the president himself who will select the name of the appointees, but he will have to receive lists of nominations from certain public institutions such as universities and syndicates," said the report, adding that "based upon these lists and in accordance with the law which will be issued to regulate the performance of the Senate, the president will move to select the names of a third of the Senate's appointees."

The report said that the committee rejected the stipulation that the Senate should comprise 250 members, as originally drafted.

"This had been the case under the two regimes of Sadat and Mubarak," said the report, arguing that "this number would be too much at the present time."

"The US Senate comprises just 100 members, while the House comprises 435 deputies, and so we think that the number of the Senate's members should not be too much, and that it should be at least 180, leaving the final say to the law which will be issued in this respect," said the report, also revealing that "the constitutional amendment stipulating that women will be allocated 25 percent of seats in the lower house will not apply to the Senate."

The report concludes that the committee decided that a Senate member should be no less than 35 years of age, hold a university degree, and have full Egyptian nationality.

"The Senate law, which will be passed in the future, will also stipulate other conditions that a Senate member should have," said the report.

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